A pale blue and pink banner emblazoned with “Protect Trans Kids” hangs on a railing. A local nonprofit leader known for her work with female-identifying youth hoists a commemorative flag to a standing ovation. This mid-March night has the air of a fundraiser or community organizing event—until columns of fire blast upward with a startling bang and 22 athletes run to their positions on the pitch.
When the OL Reign took the field against the Portland Thorns at Lumen Field earlier this year, Megan Rapinoe and company brought their blend of soccer and social awareness to a new, and much larger, arena. The National Women’s Soccer League squad has bounced around smaller venues—Tukwila’s Starfire Stadium, Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, and Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium—since its inaugural season in 2013. But after plans for a new home stalled in the City of Destiny, a move back to Seattle and the expansive, multi-deck domain of the Sounders and Seahawks beckoned—and with it, the opportunity to secure footing in this soccer-mad city. “We have nothing to prove about whether we should be here or not,” midfielder Jess Fishlock said after the club’s opening match of the Challenge Cup.
In a trial run of sorts at Lumen last summer, the Reign shattered the single-match NWSL attendance record, attracting 27,248 fans during a doubleheader with the Sounders. The 7,343-strong crowd for the March 18 tilt with the Thorns was far more modest—but still the club’s fourth largest ever. It would have overwhelmed past homes in Tukwila or Tacoma. Average spectator tallies at Memorial Stadium never approached that number, either.
Part of the squad’s draw is its ability to weave off-the-field advocacy with success on the pitch. Rapinoe has famously fought for the women’s national team to receive equal pay with their male counterparts. Quinn, a midfielder, became the first openly transgender and nonbinary athlete to win an Olympic medal last year. The club wears its support for the Canadian on its sleeves; warm-up kits repeat the “protect trans kids” message. And in lieu of a corporate sponsor, the Reign’s gameplay jerseys center the Black Future Co-op Fund, Washington’s first Black-led philanthropy. “Women for a long time have just been trying to make the case that you should invest in them as athletes, and that has forced them to take a look at themselves and know that they’re so much more,” says Susie Rantz, who writes for Reign blog Ride of the Valkyries.
This mindset extends to its followers. The Royal Guard, the Reign’s scarfed-up, drum-beating die-hards, tweeted, “Some things are bigger than rivalries,” before displaying a banner with the words “cut the rot out” at the match against the Thorns. It was a show of support for Portland players who’re demanding transparency and accountability from club ownership after two Thorns accused their former coach of sexual coercion and harassment last year.
Workplace misconduct wasn’t just a Portland problem. Former Reign coach Farid Benstiti resigned in 2021 after allegedly making inappropriate remarks about players’ fitness. And systemic abuse across the league led to the cancellation of games and the resignation of the league’s commissioner.
In the aftermath of a management fiasco, the Reign have opted to highlight its representatives on the field. A new commemorative jersey manages to list, in tiny letters, every player past or present. “We could not be here without,” Fishlock said after the draw with the Thorns, pausing to point at her teammate’s jersey, “every single person on that shirt.”
This kit is dubbed “honor”; another is labeled “hope.” Coach Laura Harvey, who returns to the Reign after several years away, says sharing a stadium with the Sounders and Seahawks means the club has already achieved one goal. “We’ve always said that the day we get to play in that stadium is the day that we can really acknowledge how far we’ve come as a team and as a club.”